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Europe Monitor
Serbia: Mass shootings, protests and instability

  Rishika Yadav
Research Assistant, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bangalore

About the Author
Rishika Yadav is a Research Assistant in NIAS Europe Studies at NIAS, Bangalore. Her area of interest includes the impact of Europe's Foreign Policy, and domestic politics. She is currently working on an issue brief on elections in Turkey 2023. Her other areas of interests include South East Asia and East Asia.

On 04 May, a gunman, in a random target, killed eight and injured 14 in three Serbian villages.  The shooting occurred near Mladenovac, south of the capitalThe country was already grieving for the previous school shooting on 03 May. After an overnight manhunt, the police apprehended a suspect. 

During 07-19 May, the "Serbia against violence" demonstration brought together people from different political backgrounds, demanding improved security, a ban on violent media content, and the resignations of President Aleksandar Vucic, Interior Minister Bratislav Gasic, and the head of Serbia's security agency. Thousands marched in Belgrade and blocked a key bridge in the second major protest following two mass shootings. The rallies came after calls for change and stricter gun control measures, with citizens surrendering over 9,000 weapons during a one-month amnesty. Protesters blamed the government for allowing a culture of violence to persist unchecked. Teachers' unions staged protests to demand changes in the education system. On 26 May, a large gathering of elites took place in the centre of Belgrade, with tens of thousands supporting Vucic. This rally was held to counter anti-government protests taking place in various cities and it was the fourth protest in May. Speakers at the "Serbia of Hope" rally included Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto and Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik. The rally featured Serbian flags and expressions of support for Vucic. Supporters attended from various regions, endorsing Vucic's pursuit of peace in Serbia. The President of the Bosnian Serb Republic told the crowd: "They attack us because we want peace in Ukraine, they attack us because we believe in family values and because we refuse to be told what to do. Serbia led by Vucic we trust and we support. Long live Serbia, long live Republika Srpska, long live Russia." 

On 27 May, following these events, Vucic announced his resignation as party leader and emphasized his role as President of all citizens. On 07 May, following two deadly mass shootings in Mladenovac and Smederevo, Education Minister Branko Ruzic resigned.

Three Issues: Gun Control, Discontent and Government Response
First, back-to-back shootings in Serbia have shocked the country and brought international attention to the gun control issue. Serbia has one of the highest rates of gun ownership globally. Serbia currently ranks third in the world for gun ownership, primarily due to leftover firearms from the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Men, particularly middle-aged and older individuals, constitute nearly 95 per cent of gun owners, with self-protection and hunting being the main reasons cited for ownership. The exact number of guns in circulation remains uncertain, as many firearms are unregistered. To address this issue, Serbia has implemented gun amnesty programs in the past, which have resulted in the voluntary surrender of over 171,000 firearms since 2012. Current Serbian gun laws require applicants to be at least eighteen years old, undergo training, pass background checks, and have justifiable reasons for gun ownership. It is noteworthy that one of the recent shootings in Serbia involved a fourteen year old, highlighting the importance of addressing the enforcement of existing laws and ensuring the appropriate handling of firearms by juveniles.

Second, in recent times, there has been a growing discontent towards the Serbian Progressive Party-led government under President Aleksandar Vucic. This is due to concerns about his excessive concentration of power, media restrictions, corruption, and the degradation of democratic principles.. Protests and boycotts against Vucic's rule have been met with repression and intimidation, by opposition and some right wing groups. Opposition parties accuse Vucic's government of fueling intolerance. They also called for an urgent parliamentary session to discuss the country's security situation. Vucic dismissed the demonstrations as a political ploy, despite vowing to disarm Serbia after the shootings. His stance on Kosovo has also drawn criticism due to his contradictory statements, expressing willingness to compromise while maintaining nationalist rhetoric. Calls were made for Vucic and certain ministers to resign, prompting the ruling elite to organize the rally. Vucic announced his resignation as party leader and emphasized his role as President of all citizens. There is a demand for the resignation of officials, revocation of licences for TV channels airing violent content and fake news, and increased accountability and transparency in the security sector and judiciary. The protests reflect a broader call for change and reform in Serbian society.

Third, Vucic accused protesters of attempting to compel his resignation and create instability in Serbia. He expressed his willingness to assess his party's support through an early election but did not provide a specific date. Vucic labelled the protest as "violence in politics" and accused opposition leaders of exploiting the tragedy. During a televised address, he affirmed his determination to continue working and not yield to public pressure. The government denies the allegations and accuses the opposition of exploiting the tragedies for political gain. In a separate counter-rally, Vucic accused the opposition of using the shootings for self-promotion. Vucic has pledged significant changes to tighten gun regulations and achieve "almost complete disarmament." As part of these efforts, he has announced a one-month amnesty for gun owners to voluntarily surrender illegal weapons without penalty, preceding the implementation of stricter measures. The government's proposed response to the recent shootings includes stricter gun laws, increased fines for illegal arms, enhanced police presence in schools, and comprehensive audits and tests for existing gun owners. The Interior Ministry has announced a voluntary surrender period for illegally possessed weapons, urging individuals to hand them over without facing charges. Those who refuse to comply may face prosecution and potential imprisonment. The government's actions also involve intensified surveillance of shooting ranges, a moratorium on new licenses, and stricter storage regulations for firearms. 

What next? 
The recent incidents have brought to light the deeply ingrained issue of violence within Serbian society. These tragic events have not only led to funerals for the victims but have also raised concerns about the high number of registered firearms per capita in the country. Serbia has a significant prevalence of gun ownership, which raises concerns about the potential for violence, particularly in a society marked by societal divisions and the glorification of war criminals. While stricter gun laws have been implemented in several countries following mass shootings, the US stands out as an exception due to constitutional protections for gun rights. 

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